At first, nobody openly mentioned the B-words: breakthroughs and boosters.
In the spring, the CDC encouraged, cajoled and, finally, pleaded with Americans to get the first COVID-19 vaccine available to them. Get your first shot. Don’t forget your second shot.
Then, go live your life — for at least a week or two.
During that brief euphoric period, I did some of the exciting things I’d been putting off. For example, I visited the Maryland MVA office in Columbia and renewed my drivers license, taking off my mask indoors, with nearly 100 others milling about, to smile for the camera. My husband took one look at the picture and said: “I can tell you’re holding your breath.”
Delta, the vixen of variants, quickly ruined it all. By July, the CDC was warning of a spike in U.S. cases. An internal report said delta was as contagious as chickenpox. Not only that but vaccinated folks were perhaps spreading it to each other with something called breakthrough infections. Some guy — a doctor, no less — went to a house party in Montgomery County where everyone was vaccinated and within days nearly all of the attendees had COVID.
Then came scary data from Israel showing waning vaccine effectiveness for seniors. Many were getting sick and some were being hospitalized. Experts disagreed if vaccines were really the problem. Maybe delta was just too contagious. Maybe it was only the Pfizer vaccine that had lost its potency or maybe the pharmaceutical company — the first to casually float the idea of third shots back in April — was counting on billions of boosters to bolster its bottom line. Charts filled with squiggly lines and rising bars drew all of our attention to the data or lack of it as experts contradicted each other and hospitals just kept packing in sick people.
Summer quickly became a mixed messaging meltdown. Now the vaccinated were the prime target for misinformation. Breakthrough infections were mild, or were they? Vaccinated people were dying, but how many? The risk calculus came with a math lesson: Remember the denominator — number of sick who are vaccinated is not the same as number of vaccinated who are sick.
Then came another B-word from President B in August. The Biden administration would recommend booster shots for Americans who had received a COVID-19 vaccine at least 8 months earlier. The boosting would begin Sept. 20.
Finally, some clarity. It lasted for about a week. After that, word dribbled out that maybe U.S. officials would go with a 6-month time frame. Or maybe the immunocompromised would not have to wait that long at all. Or maybe people who had the Moderna vaccine wouldn’t even need a full booster — just half a dose. Those who had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with some doses manufactured right here in Baltimore, were either better off, worse off or just left off the booster list.
In September, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan took matters into his own hands, authorizing boosters for nursing homes and other congregate settings and for those with compromised immune systems, who wouldn’t even need a prescription. This after the governor, a cancer survivor, had received a booster shot himself weeks earlier.
As summer waned into fall, the disagreements widened about who should get a booster and how that might affect the world. How selfish were Americans going to be about prizing their own safety above that of the entire globe? Advisory panels met and voted on one thing. A different group proposed something else. The CDC overruled one recommendation and adopted another.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans rolled up their sleeves again and got a booster shot without waiting to be told to do so or knowing how safe it was to do so.
Some lied, certainly, about their eligibility, perhaps needing a little assurance in what continues to be an unbearably long period of uncertainty. Many did not. But it doesn’t matter, because who is eligible and who isn’t is frankly not the question.
The question is: When will this pandemic end, and who can we count on to keep us safe until it does?
There was hope earlier this year that a new White House would be the remedy. Unlike his predecessor, President Biden invited in the cameras when he received his booster shot Monday for all to see. But the virus has quickly shown itself capable of outsmarting the best of intentions.
So at this point, the answer to both questions is unknown. And when there are no answers or in fact, so many conflicting answers that reasonable experts cannot agree, people will come to their own conclusions.
And that would be bad.
Michelle Deal-Zimmerman is senior content editor for features and an advisory member of The Sun’s Editorial Board. Her column runs every fourth Wednesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.